When you purchase an independently reviewed book through our site, we earn an affiliate commission.
It’s hard not to bring a heavy dose of armchair psychology to “State of Terror,” the surprising new geopolitical thriller by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny. I say surprising because Penny is best known for writing gentler mysteries that plumb the delicate secrets of the heart and Clinton has never published a novel before.
This kind of mash-up — a professional paired with an amateur, à la “Dancing With the Stars” — runs in the Clinton family. “State of Terror” follows on the heels of “The President’s Daughter,” the second joint effort by former President Bill Clinton and the prolific James Patterson.
Which of the Clintons’ novels you prefer will depend, as always, on personal taste. “The President’s Daughter” is all testosterone and swagger, full of gritty operatives eager to rush into impossible situations using only their wits and their massive weapons. “State of Terror” addresses similar subjects — terrorism, treachery, blackmail, government malfeasance. But while Bill’s characters speak loudly and wave their big sticks (they are men), Hillary’s listen intently and use their keen understanding of human nature to outmaneuver their adversaries (they are women).
The plot in “State of Terror” is ambitious and apocalyptic. Nothing less than the future of the world is at stake. As the novel begins, Ellen Adams, the former proprietor of an international media empire, has been improbably appointed U.S. secretary of state by Douglas Williams, the condescending president whose candidacy she had opposed. Exhausted and disheveled after flying back overnight from a disastrous trip to South Korea, she arrives late for Williams’s State of the Union address.
“What in God’s name are you wearing?” snarks the secretary of defense, as Ellen rushes into the House chamber. “Have you been mud wrestling again?”
Things are about to get much worse. A bomb goes off in London, another in Paris, a third in Frankfurt. They are linked, but how?
Blame falls on Bashir Shah, an evil Pakistani arms dealer “intent on creating a hell on earth.” Shah was secretly freed from prison with the blessing of the previous U.S. president. He hates Ellen, whose media company once laid bare his crimes in a devastating documentary; he may have even killed her husband using untraceable poison.
The bombs spark a high-speed diplomatic race: Ellen flies around meeting world leaders, including the grand ayatollah of Iran, in an effort to prevent the detonation of nuclear devices hidden in three American cities. The plot is overstuffed, and it can be hard to keep track of the complicated cast, which includes Ellen’s daughter, now in charge of the media company; her son from her first marriage, an investigative journalist with some question marks surrounding his own past; a lowly foreign service officer with a passel of secrets; and the press secretary for the previous, Trumpian president, who is alarmed at what the Republicans are doing but has a few choice words for “elitist Democrats.”
But don’t worry too much about keeping things straight. This is a romp. The authors have a great deal of fun throwing up red herrings. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence suspect each other of treason. Who is lying? Who will win the fist fight that breaks out in the White House? And what about the president, who seems kind of sketchy himself?
Like Agatha Christie’s elderly Miss Marple, who concealed her razor-sharp mind under a twittery exterior to outwit the parade of murderers overrunning her small village, Ellen uses her status as an apparently in-over-her-head middle-aged woman as a stealth weapon, never letting her ego get in the way.
“Maxim Ivanov stood in the middle of the room, not moving. Forcing Ellen to go to him, which she did. These petty gestures, meant to insult, had no effect on her,” the authors write. Ellen knows that men like Ivanov, the Russian president, “would always undervalue and underestimate women.”
Nor does Ellen blanch when the mansplaining British foreign secretary makes an incisive point about the methods of the Mossad, the Israeli national intelligence agency. “He seemed to have forgotten that Ellen had said exactly that just a few minutes earlier,” the authors write.
Ellen gets help outwitting men from Betsy Jameson, her oldest friend and a State Department counselor, who serves as her cheerleader, adviser and partner-in-stealth. Their relationship is delightful. (Wait until you read about the nerdy code they use to verify their communications.) The scene in which Betsy, back in the State Department, hides the fact that she is illicitly searching for classified information by making it look as if she is hanging out and playing Candy Crush on her cellphone is completely charming.
Political junkies will relish the veiled insults to real-life people. (Ha, you think, as you read the authors’ stock disclaimer about all the characters being fictional.) There’s a shambolic “upper-class twit” of a British prime minister who hides his essential hollowness by spouting “random Latin phrases.” The Russian president is a ruthless, calculating tyrant who ran rings around the previous American administration.
Clinton and Penny reserve their darkest shade for former President Eric Dunn, a preening, bombastic one-termer who shredded the country’s reputation and retreated to Florida to sulk, play golf and plot his return. Sure, Dunn is charismatic, with an uncanny ability to exploit people’s weaknesses, but he is also an idiot. Even his closest associates called him “Eric the Dumb.”
But Dunn is backed by people who are alarmingly competent. Here is the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that Clinton first mentioned years ago, now even vaster and right-wingier than before. Its members, many in the upper echelons of power, “hate America’s diversity,” and are actively plotting to overthrow the U.S. government and reinstate Dunn “because he’ll do what they want.”
“State of Terror” may bring Penny into new fictional territory, but her imprint is everywhere. The emotional cast to the writing, the tendency to dangle portents and wait some time before resolving them, the depiction of friendship, the short paragraphs, the philosophical aperçus — these are all marks of Penny’s writing. (Lovers of her work are in for a special little treat at the end.)
If Clinton is slyly settling old political scores, she is also, sweetly, celebrating women’s support of one another later in life, and I was moved by the authors’ notes paying tribute to Betsy Ebeling, one of Clinton’s oldest friends, who died not so long ago and was an inspiration for the character of Betsy Jameson. The ending leaves open the possibility that this is the beginning of a beautiful fictional friendship.
Maybe there’s nothing competitive about celebrity spouses pairing with established novelists and publishing novels within a few months of each other. But I’m going to award the prize for Best Clinton Thriller of 2021 to Hillary.